How COVID has changed citizen services

Record demand for services and pandemic precautions have prompted some fundamental reassessments about delivery.

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The COVID-19 put unprecedented demands on agency call centers and citizen-facing digital services. New programs scaled up on short notice, in-person channels disappeared, and agencies were swamped with citizen inquiries that span traditional organizational silos — all while agency workforces had to reinvent their internal operations.

FCW gathered a group of IT leaders this past May to explore how agencies have responded to these pressures, and where there may be new opportunities to break through old barriers to deliver better citizens services.

The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see sidebar for full list of participants), and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here's what the group had to say.

Supporting the surge

Not every agency saw dramatic increases in citizen requests. For one participant, there "was actually this constriction of volume based off of what we do for the government." Inbound call traffic dropped by two-thirds, forcing that agency to reallocate staff during the lull while remaining ready for demand to bounce back.

FCW Perspectives


Keith Alderson
Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Debt Management Services, Bureau of Fiscal Service, Department of the Treasury

Richard Burnham
Acting Director DCSD-DMS, Bureau of Fiscal Services, Department of the Treasury

Sheila Rose Campbell
Special Advisor for Digital Services, Office of Policy, Planning and Resources, Department of State

Judith Conklin
Deputy CIO, Library of Congress

Evan Davis
Senior Vice President, Federal Civilian Agencies, MAXIMUS

Nora Dempsey
Senior Advisor for Innovation, Department of State

Sanjay Gupta
CTO, Small Business Administration

Larry Reagan
Vice President, Finance, MAXIMUS

Harrison Smith
Chief Procurement Officer, Internal Revenue Service

Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider led the roundtable discussion. The May 26 gathering was underwritten by MAXIMUS, but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither the sponsors nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their May 26 comments.

For agencies directly involved in relief efforts, however, the work increased exponentially. Traffic to some federal websites spiked 1,000% as citizens sought answers and assistance. One participant told of processing as many transactions in a 24-hour period as that program normally handled in an entire year.

Simply adding more resources wasn't enough. At one agency's call center, the volume "exploded through the roof," one official recalled. "We added thousands of new people in there, but that still couldn't be managed from a human standpoint. The velocity of incoming calls was far exceeding any capabilities to scale up there."

"We had to look for other ways to minimize or reduce the traffic coming in through our customer support channels," the official continued. To ease pressure on the traditional phone channel, the agency created self-service help resources and "added chat bot capabilities to do some very basic rudimentary questions to be answered."

When email inquiries similarly surged, agencies turned to automation and natural language processing. Not only could simple requests be handled without a human at the keyboard, but the analysis provided new insights into what citizens really needed. "We were able to see some trends, some sentiment analysis, to see the pervasive theme that's coming across these millions of emails that are coming in, the official said. "We used that information to then inform our FAQs, policies, and inform our program offices and say, 'Look, this is what we are hearing in an aggregated fashion from the customers and the citizens who are the recipients of these services.'"

"Quite differently, we are now listening to the voice of the customer," another official said. "The voice of the customer does not come through the standard channels of filling out our customer survey form. It happens organically. And guess what, we as consumers of technology today have many options of sharing our feedback and the most common of those are in social media platforms. If you're not listening to that, obviously, you're missing the voice of the customer or the citizen here."

A tipping point for natural language processing?

The sheer volume of citizen requests may have finally pushed natural language solutions into the realm of the practical for many agencies, another participant said.

"Commercial partners and large companies have now been embracing natural language, voice assistant machine learning tools for coming up on 10 years now," the official said, "where it's really been a struggle for government agencies until the last year."

The official pointed to two problems. First, "the cost efficiencies really only come into play when you're dealing with extremely large scale volumes. It makes complete sense for Amazon. It makes complete sense for Comcast. Whether it makes sense for every agency or every part of an agency? Less so."

Second, commercial firms often "try to be so conversational that you lose the certainty of the message that you're delivering. I often joke that in a lot of cases in the contact center space, when acting as the voice of the federal government, we often want our people to act like robots. Why on earth do we want our robots to act like people? We want them to deliver extremely certain phrases. How do we help our consumers fit into the bureaucratic need that we have to get them to the exact right spot? That takes certainty."

COVID drove the volume to create cost efficiencies, the official said, and the natural language algorithms have advanced to the point where they can "understand the intent of the caller," and then deliver carefully "scripted language on the back end to provide an answer. We're finally seeing that technology be available and be effective."

Internal customers first

For most agencies, citizen service volume surged at the same time senior officials were scrambling to move their teams to telework. Roundtable participants noted that this was often more difficult than adjusting the citizen experience — yet absolutely essential to allowing the workforce to focus on end customers.

Several officials said it took months just to provision employees with laptops and other essential remote-work equipment. "The supply chain hit us," one noted.

At other agencies, the challenge was inconsistency. "A lot of our IT is fairly decentralized," another official said. "Where I sit, we had a culture where people come on board and you give them a laptop, but that is not necessarily the case in other parts of the department. And so we just found that there were really big disparities and that complicated the response."

Creating a constructive remote work culture took longer still. "I think we really need to think about this hybrid work environment where we have this distributed workforce, people in multiple time zones," one official said. "Ultimately, if they feel comfortable with the technology, they'll deliver better services. They'll think more innovatively about how to apply the technology solutions to better serve the customers. I'll plus one to all the things about citizen metrics and all of that, but I think our focus is going to be, how do we help the workforce really adapt in this future workspace?"

Shifting standards of what's acceptable

Several executives argued that citizen expectations had changed significantly as the number of requests exploded. "A slightly different aspect of this conversation is the changing nature of what's acceptable," one said. "I think the aspect of how we identify the appropriate ways in a changing landscape to authenticate engagements with taxpayers and the public" is essential.

Those shifts span everything from signature requirements — what, exactly, qualifies as a valid electronic signature? — to managers' acceptance of telework.

"Even 10 years ago, I remember the conversation around, 'Hey, if you can't give me a work plan for the day, you need to come in and come to work,'" one executive said. "And my joke at the time was, 'Yes, because if you don't have any work to do, you darn well better not do work in the office.'"

"I think what's really pushed us unexpectedly is just this mindset of, 'we can do all this stuff online,'" another participant observed. "I know that seems so basic, but even rethinking our physical footprint, like these processes that we used to say you can only do them in person. Well, actually we figured out a way to do it online. Maybe we've had to re-look at our risk posture in doing that, but it forced us to actually do that. I think just that realization that we really need to deliver these services online to citizens is huge."

Another official suggested that "the breakdown of some societal norms and the status quo due to COVID has also broken down a lot of those barriers. We're loosening security restrictions. We're loosening workplace restrictions. We're loosening the norms around how we communicate with each other. So I'm optimistic that there's an opportunity here for people trying to do what you're doing to use that breakdown to open up some communications around how to link those things together."

Learning to ask the right question

Being forced to abandon old ways of delivering service has forced agencies to think about what the central mission goals are.

"Frequently, we can get in position, especially in the procurement arena, where we get a lot of smart people in a closet who go off for three, six, nine, 12 months and figure out precisely what I want industry to help us with," one executive noted. "And tell them exactly that, as opposed to saying, 'I want you to be able to extract machine-readable data out of low-resolution images. That's what I want you to be able to do. And I want you to be able to interface with our systems. I don't care how you do it. I'm going to make selections based on what the user likes and what has the greatest rate of return in terms of least manual work and least need of correction. That's what I want you to do. Show me what you've got.' Those conversations are infinitely more productive than trying to be the smartest person in the room."

Another official concurred, adding that too often decisions are driven by an "I want this" declaration, "whether it's from an internal customer or an external taxpayer." That could be a demand for a new scanning solution to digitize records, or for more call center staffing to meeting increased demand.

"Sometimes we need to respond immediately given a particular situation and don't have a lot of time to go through a drawn-out analysis process," that official noted. "But we need to be able to ask questions about, 'What are you trying to accomplish?' 'What is the end goal?' and 'What are you trying to do?'"

"If we don't resource things correctly and we don't address the business process and policy aspects of things, it's just going to create a backlog in a different place."

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